Dear White Leaders: Ethnic Minorities Excel at More Than Just Minority Ministry
As a white male in ministry who has had the privilege of getting to know many of my ethnic minority colleagues over the years, I’d like to dispel a notion that has crept into the psyche of many of us white leaders. A number of us have come to live as if ethnic minorities are only good at reaching their own people. It’s past time we realize ethnic minorities excel at more than just minority ministry.
Now on the surface you’d think this would be a no-brainer. I can almost hear what you’re thinking, “Of course they are qualified to do more than just reach their own people. Everyone knows that.” While our lips may be saying the right thing, frequently our behavior betrays a deep, often unintentional, bias. Consider how the following stories show some of the lies we can believe:
Lie #1: White = Everyone
An Asian-American friend of mine was being considered for an upper level management role in a college ministry. Despite extensive experience serving overseas and growing multiple ministries in the US at large state schools, they were passed over for the role. One of the actual stated reasons was: “If we put them in this role will they be passionate about reaching all students or will they care only about Asian Americans?” (At this point I’ll mention that the same question was probably not asked of the White candidates, especially given the fact that the ministry was almost entirely composed of White students and staff.)
It was assumed that White leaders would care about all students, but an Asian American leader would only care about Asian Americans.
Lie #2: White = Expert
A college ministry blog touted the fact that they had gathered a wide variety of college ministry leaders with extensive experience to write for them. Multiple national ministries were represented in a star studded lineup of contributors. It was more goodness than should be allowed to be in one place.
The only problem: 17 of the 18 authors were White males. (The 18th was a White female focused on women’s ministry). Despite the fact that multiple ethnic minorities had written for them in the past on ethnic minority ministry, apparently none of those authors were approached about potentially having something to say about college ministry in general.
It can be assumed that ethnic minority bloggers are experts on reaching minorities, but have nothing to offer towards college ministry wisdom in general.
Lie #3: White = Exclusive Calling
Most missionaries sent from the US are White. There are American believers serving God in every country of the planet. This is a beautiful thing to be celebrated.
The bias against ethnic minorities often appears when they are mobilized to join what God is doing around the world. “Oh, you’re Latino? You should serve in Latin America. Oh, you’re Asian American, we have a perfect opportunity for you in China.”
You know what I hardly hear anyone ever say? “Oh, you’re White? I think God’s calling you to Scandinavia.” It sounds ridiculous when phrased this way, yet we do the same thing to ethnic minorities all the time.
We can subconsciously assume that excelling in global cross-cultural mission is the exclusive calling of White missionaries.
Lie #4: White = Essential Foundation
Often whenI hear of a college ministry wanting to begin outreach at a new campus, the default assumption is that the initial focus will be White students. I rarely ever hear the thought, “What if we started by focusing on Black students and went through that community to reach the entire campus?” I had been in campus ministry for more than 5 years before someone ever pointed this out about me. It’s almost as if we forget that Christianity began as an unstoppable movement among an ethnic minority group in the Roman Empire.
The assumption is often that if you want to start a multiethnic community to reach a campus you should start with White students.
Lie #5: Ethnic Minorities = Shame-Reducing Brochure Models
It is increasingly popular to appear to be a diverse organization in America. Because of the shame associated with seeming to be an all White ministry, many ministries now adorn their websites, social media profiles, and promotional brochures with pictures of their few ethnic minority staff.
But, if you look at their leadership or who is considered an expert on their blogs, the positions are often dominated by White staff (and usually male).
Organizationally, when ethnic minorities are given prominence in our publicity but not in our leadership positions, we can treat them as if we want them only so we can look better, not because we believe they have something to offer and teach us in our ministries.
I could go on and on with ways that betray our default assumptions about ethnicity and competency in ministry (Before I could even finish writing this post a Christian magazine listed 10 books to read before 25…and hopefully by this point in my post you can guess where this is going.)
The Truth About Ethnic Minority Ministers
The truth is that ethnic minority ministers are doing amazing work for the Kingdom of God. Their labors are moving the Church forward in ways that are simply incredible. Consider the list below, which only scratches the surface of what God is doing:
- James Choung — Developed the innovative “Big Story” Gospel Presentation and is leading nationally in Evangelism.
- Sara Shin — A Korean-American woman shepherding White staff nationally in White Ethnic Identity. Has also helped develop The Story Project.
- Christena Cleveland — Leading the Church to move past the forces that keep us Disunited in Christ.
- Epic Movement — An Asian American ministry creating New Evangelistic Tools to reach the entire campus.
- Soong-Chan Rah — Leading the church into Prophetic Lament and embracing the Next Evangelicalism
- Countless Amazing Black Staff who are weeping and reminding us that because of the Imago Dei, we can’t ignore #BlackLivesMatter.
- Ken Fong — Boldly pioneering answers for Evangelicals on how should the church love Gay Christians?
- Noel Castellanos — Leading an association that not only develops their communities, but the next generation of multiethnic leadership for the church.
College ministry “needs to divest itself of whiteness and maleness.”
— Christena Cleveland
What Am I Not Saying?
I’m not saying we White males don’t belong (though this is often the gut reaction when issues like this are brought up). I’m not saying ministries are evil or these slights are intentional. I’m just saying that our biases are normal — and wicked. They prevent the flourishing of the Kingdom of God through the lives of our ethnic minority brothers and sisters. Our ministries are suffering because we allow these biases to remain unchecked in our souls.
I’m not saying we white males need to feel shame for who we are. But we do need to be a part of changing the current system along with our ethnic minority brothers and sisters.
I’m certainly not saying that all White leaders always act in these ways. Many platform, empower, or serve under amazing ethnic minority leaders.
I’m not saying that I have this figured out or that I’ve never made these mistakes myself. I definitely have, and I’ve been shown grace in the process. I’ve written this post out of a desire to shed light on the numerous ways these biases can play out in our ministries, even despite our best intentions.
What Can You Do?
- When you see a conference lineup that is overwhelmingly dominated by White males like me, speak up and refuse to attend or promote it. Instead, attend a conference with incredible speaker diversity like Urban Youth Workers Institute.
- Pick out 5 books on your shelf written by White males and sell them at Half Price Books or Amazon. Take the proceeds and buy two copies of a book by an ethnic minority or female author. Keep one yourself and give another to a leader in your ministry. (Not sure who to read? Try Virgilio Elizondo, Christena Cleveland, James Cone, Helen Lee, Justo Gonzalez, Soong-Chan Rah, and more.)
- Read blogs by Kathy Khang, Dr. Robert Chao Romero, or any of the 25 bloggers Christena Cleveland listed in her post, People of Color Blog Too.
- Pay attention to who is given the stage at staff gatherings. The next time you are at a college ministers retreat and the presenters up front are majority White and male, ask the organizers why they didn’t include other voices.
- If you write for or edit one of the many college ministry blogs dominated almost exclusively by White male authors, take a cue from Beau at Release the APE and cultivate a diverse contributor list. The experts are there, and they’re often not being invited to write anywhere else.
Ethnic minorities excel at more than just ethnic minority ministry. May the decisions we make and voices we platform reflect a firm belief in this truth.